Tag Archives: historical fiction

Review: The Nightingale

515p3orn1kl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Recap: Viann and Isabelle are two sisters at different points in their lives, who are both dealing with the same struggle: surviving in Nazi-occupied France during WWII. Just because they’re not Jewish doesn’t make things any easier. Viann and her daughter are forced to house a Nazi while Viann’s husband fights in the war. While she prays daily for her husband, she also must continue teaching students at school and being the primary support for her Jewish best friend and neighbor. She carries on with her duties while watching her hometown fall apart and witnessing death and destruction.

While Viann tries to get through each day, Isabelle decides she must do something and joins rebel group. She moves back to France to live with her father, with whom she has a tumultuous relationship. After months of passing notes between other rebels, she takes up an even greater cause: saving injured foreign soldiers by leading them through the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain.

The story goes back and forth between WWII and a time 50 years later, when one of the sisters considers returning to France for the first time since the war.

Analysis: As much as I love books, it takes a lot for one to make me cry, and The Nightingale had been sobbing, but not in a depressing way like My Sister’s Keeper, and not in a unnecessarily depressing way like One Day. The ending of The Nightingale was simply so perfect, so beautiful that it brought tears of joy to my eyes in the best way. These sisters suffered through so much and made so many sacrifices. Their lives didn’t go the way they wanted or expected them to, but the way they lived them was worth it in the end. Without giving away too much, it was just beautiful.

The mystery of which sister was telling the story 50 years later kept me turning pages as much as their own individual stories. Even the less interesting sections about Viann cooking dinner were still fascinating because of the greater issues going on around her.

I also loved that this was a Holocaust fiction novel about two non-Jews. It makes it obvious that even for the groups that weren’t targeted, there was still so much pain and anguish, and that’s not something we hear about too often when reflecting on Europe during WWII.

MVP: Isabelle. She received the least amount of love. Her family constantly pushed her away. She never received the support she needed or deserved. And yet, she showed more love, gave more support and exhibited more strength than any of the characters in the novel. She made life possible for so many people, and that cannot be ignored.

Get The Nightingale in hardcover for $16.13. 

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Review: The Storyteller

Recap: Sage Singer is perfectly content with her sad, lonely life. Well, “perfectly content” may not have been the right phrase to use. That said, she’s comfortable, working overnights at a bakery, keeping distant from her sisters since their parents died, and sleeping with a man who has a wife and family. But everything changes with Sage meets Josef Weber. He’s not a new love interest. He’s a 90-year-old retiree who lives in her small Rhode Island town and lets Sage in on a secret. He tells her he’s a former Nazi and wants Sage, a Jewish girl, to kill him and end his guilty suffering.

In typical Jodi Picoult controversial-story-content fashion, Sage must decide what to do — whether to assist suicide this reformed Nazi or whether to let him continue his suffering until he eventually dies. As she struggles with the decision, she reaches out to the Department of Justice. Leo is the agent set on helping her uncover Josef’s secrets and prosecute him. In order to do that, she needs the help of a Holocaust survivor. Luckily, Sage’s grandmother, Minka, is such a woman. Minka shares her horrific story in the hopes that it will be enough to convict Josef for all his wrongdoings. But along with the detail-oriented investigation and research lies another issue — time. Will Sage, her grandmother and Leo be able to pull this all together before Josef dies of regular old age?

Analysis: Jodi Picoult does it again — choosing a controversial issue about which to write and finding a way to develop emotionally complex characters. She sticks to the same format as her other books, switching between narrators each chapter. I like that format. It works for her books because it allows the reader to better understand the different sides of each controversial topic. But in The Storyteller, things became muddled in the middle.

The grandmother’s section about her experience in the Holocaust was long and gruesome. It was powerful, and maybe that’s why she chose not to have another character break up the section. But It was so emotionally difficult for me to get through, it would have been nice to have had another characters’ thoughts interspersed there.

The novel was so great, the story so powerful, the pain so excruciating, and then there was the ending. The end was a bit of a shock, but not enough to leave me breathless. It was not as satisfying as it could have been. After all Picoult did to build those characters, all I could do at the end was shrug. And that was disappointing.

MVP: Sage is a mess at the start of the novel. But by the end, she gets it together in the most unlikely of ways. She proves her strength, finds her undiscovered confidence and voice, and she finally does something. Her growth was wonderful to follow.

Get The Storyteller in paperback for $8.51.

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Review: Whip Smart: Lola Montez Starts a Revolution

Recap: Lola Montez is on the run, and where to next? It’s the mid-1800s, and Montez is not one to settle. So when she is dared to seduce a king, she moves to Bavaria to try her hand at seducing King Ludwig I. That’s where she becomes one of the most famous mistresses in European history. Does this sound familiar? It might. That’s because it’s all based on the true story of the real Lola Montez, an actress, dancer, and mistress from the 19th century.

It’s her relationship with King Ludwig that results in backlash from the public. But Lola and her crazy self is too oblivious to notice the continental shakeup she’s had a part in starting. As she hooks the king, she continues to have sexual relationships with other men. Meanwhile, her daughter is cared for by her own mother — the fact that she’s the mother is kept secret from the both the little girl and anyone else Lola knows. Right decision or not, it’s enough to give Lola a reason to keep going.

Analysis: It’s hard for me to put into words what I didn’t like about this book. All I can say is there was a lot. It was twisty, and with no knowledge of the real Lola Montez, I didn’t know where the story was going. Her character comes off not so much cosmopolitan as she is casually slutty. The book is obviously meant to be comedic; we’re meant to laugh at her obliviousness and her ability to command attention and power without necessarily meaning to. But instead, I found it annoying. She came off as silly and dumb to me, making it difficult for me to connect with her and her story. The most interesting part was the relationship she had with her daughter — the daughter who doesn’t know Lola is actually her mom. But the reader only gets small glimpses into that relationship.

The book is also hard to read as a stand alone. It’s the third book in a series about Lola Montez, the Whip Smart series, and though it was teased as a novel I’d be able to read without having read the previous novels, it didn’t feel that way. It referenced things that happened in the earlier books fairly often. Eventually I was able to figure it out, but it made it hard for me to sympathize with Lola and what she had already been through.

MVP: Lola Montez. Despite how many issues I had with the book, she was nothing if not a spicy character with lots of personality! I couldn’t help but laugh at her casual looseness and aloofness.

Get Whip Smart: Lola Montez Starts a Revolution in paperback for $14.60.

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Review: The House Girl

Recap: When young associate lawyer Lina Sparrow is assigned to a massive class-action case involving slavery, she at first, has no idea where to begin. The client her firm is representing is seeking reparations for the descendants of American slaves — an historic case that, if won, would bring in millions for hundreds, if not thousands of slave descendants. It’s a tough case, but Lina is determined to win, and so begins the research. She must find the perfect lead witness, a slave descendant with a rich backstory that will tug at the jury’s heartstrings.

That’s when she decides to find a living descendant of Josephine Bell, a Civil War era slave from Lynnhurst, VA. Josephine’s owner, Luanna Bell, was an amazing artist, but according to legend, Josephine was the one secretly finishing Missus Bell’s paintings and sketches. A slave with an amazing talent, who never received recognition would make Josephine Bell’s descendants perfect for Lina’s case.

As readers, we delve into the stories of both extraordinary women, both on a mission — one, for the biggest success of her career, the other, for a chance at freedom. As their stories unfold, we learn more about their individual backstories and how their families have affected who they’ve become.

Analysis: Historical fiction mixed with modern-day storytelling, The House Girl switches back and forth between Josephine chapters set in Virginia in the 1850’s and Lina chapters set in New York City in 2004. Chapters devoted to only one person allows the reader to get a deeper reading of each woman. We learn about Lina’s mother who was killed when she was only four years old, and the broken, but still somewhat close relationship she has with her artist father, Oscar. We’re also given insight into the mentoring relationship Josephine was lucky enough to have with Missus Luanne Bell. Not to mention, understanding of her desire to escape slavery in the North.

The House Girl tells a truly beautiful story of two completely unrelated characters from different worlds and different time periods connecting in an unexpected way. The way author Tara Conklin is able to balance between fiction and historical fiction is impressive and keeps the book moving, as the reader desperately wants to learn how these two women end up.

At times, there are so many subplots, some seem to get lost in the shuffle. Not to mention, the ending feels a bit rushed and maybe even anticlimactic. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point isn’t to get the ending we’re expecting, but o understand that when Josephine gets her happy ending in a not-so-happy way, Lina realizes the happy ending we want for her, isn’t really the one she wants.

MVP: Lina. An incredibly focused, driven woman, she’s the only who seeks out Josephine and works to bridge their worlds together. Although it’s not appreciated, she does it, and finds her own happiness along the way.

The House Girl officially goes on sale today. Get it now for $16.97.

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Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Recap: As a less than fortunate 7-year-old living in 19th century China, all Lily wants is to become close to a group of “sworn sisters” — or best friends — and marry well. Seven is not typically the time when you think of marrying, but it is for Lily and her family, who live in a remote Hunan county. But everything changes when a matchmaker tells her family that Lily’s feet — the truest sign of beauty, luck, and wealth — can not only lead to a marriage into a rich family, but a “laotong,” or “just same.” A “laotong” is a best friend with whom one forms a much deeper relationship than she ever could with a group of “sworn sisters.”

That’s when Lily meets Snow Flower. The two vow to be best friends in the form of a contract written on a secret fan. Over several decades, Lily and Snow Flower grow to be as close as two people can get. They share secret notes and letters on that same fan throughout the years. They marry. They have children. But Lily produces a number of sons and marries well, while Snow Flower produces stillborns, weak sons, and daughters. She marries a butcher — the lowest of the low, and does not fair well.

With a friendship as long and deep as theirs, it seems unfathomable that anything could break it, but the secrets run deeper than Lily knows. And in the end, the novel — written in first person — becomes an apology note.

Analysis: Though it’s set in China in the 1800’s and devotes a portion of the novel to the Taiping Rebellion, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story about a real female friendship. In Lily, we see the friend who tries to care, tries not to judge, but in the end, shows selfishness. In Snow Flower, we see the friend who tries to hide her secrets out of shame and holds onto that passivity throughout her life.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a testament to the ways a relationship between two women can change over the years. Little girls, little problems; big girls, big problems, and those problems can have a devastating effect on a friendship. Lisa See’s themes here are similar to those she writes about in Shanghai Girls, but they run just as deep. The end is heartbreaking, but as a woman, it’s completely relatable, making See’s first bestseller an excruciating, but exhilarating tale.

MVP: Lily. Both Lily and Snow Flower demonstrate flaw after flaw throughout the novel. But Lily finally comes to terms with what’s happened between them. She apologizes and makes up for it as best as she can. It takes a lot of strength to persevere through what Lily has, but she does it with elegance.

You can get Snow Flower and the Secret Fan in paperback for $10.20.

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Review: Shanghai Girls

Recap: In Shanghai — “The Paris of China” — in the 1930’s, Pearl and May Chin are privileged, beautiful, rich girls, raised in a life of glamour, parties, and all things wonderful. But when their father informs them that he’s broke and has made a deal to marry them off to make up for his losses, their world changes entirely. Add to that the beginning of World War II and the Japanese bombing of Shanghai, and you’ve got the makings of a deeply impactful story.

Shanghai Girls follows Pearl and May as they marry the men their father has selected — Sam and Vern. It follows them as they journey overseas to America — and get stuck on Angel Island for months before they’re allowed into the country. And it follows them as they begin to build a life based on the American dream — a dream they never knew they had before.

Analysis: Shanghai Girls is divided into three parts: Fate, Fortune, and Destiny. Typically, dividing a book into portions doesn’t have much of an effect on me or the way I read it. But in the case of Shanghai Girls, it works. The way Pearl’s and May’s lives unfold is drastic. They face so many ups and downs that the parts helps to separate them and keep track of everything.

The first part of the book is difficult to get through. It’s graphic, depressing, and — no, heartwrenching. Because the young girls face so much hardship, I found I needed to know what happened. I longed to learn how they got out of their mess, if they got out. Shanghai Girls deals with many social issues of the time — war, Communism, illegal immigration, and civil rights. Reading it makes clear how much harder things were for the Chinese than most other U.S. immigrants.

The tale of Pearl and May is gripping. But it’s also a story of love — love between two sisters who only have each left in a crazy world. Pearl and May are the only truly stagnant parts of each other’s lives, and reading about their deep understanding and respect for each other is as captivating as the story itself.

MVP: Pearl’s husband, Sam. Each character in this novel has some kind of overwhelming flaw. But not Sam. Though he initially appears as the “evil” husband who Pearl is forced to marry, he becomes the perfect husband. And despite  his tragedy, he still remains the character that stands out as the kindest, most loving, and down to earth person in the book.

Get Shanghai Girls now for only $10.

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Review: The Age of Innocence

Recap: New York City in the 1870’s is nothing like the Manhattan we know today. And that’s what Edith Wharton shows us in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence. An American fiction classic, The Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer, an upstanding New York lawyer who comes from a family of wealth and aristocracy. Archer is set to marry the lovely, fair, and innocent May Welland. But when May’s “foreign” cousin Madame Ellen Olenska returns to New York after her marriage fails in Europe, things get complicated.

Because Ellen Olesnka wants a divorce, she is black-labeled as the scandalous member of the family. On top of that, her time spent in Europe makes her “different” from the other women in New York. While most are embarrassed by her, Archer is intrigued. Their relationship quickly falls into the realm of flirtation when he is asked to deal with her divorce. But because divorce is so vehemently frowned upon, he encourages her to stay married to her husband but to continue living away from him in New York.

As their relationship progresses, so does Archer’s insistence that May move up the date of their wedding. In 19th century New York, the only thing people discuss more than divorce is an affair, thereby making Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, and May Welland the talk of the town.

Analysis: The Age of Innocence is a classic story of expectation versus desire, and this is mostly due to the setting of the novel. In 1870’s New York, there are certain things that are expected from members of the high society. For instance, marriage, children, trips to Europe and the opera, and dinner parties. But Archer’s relationship with Madame Olenska opens his eyes to a world where people make decisions based on what they feel, rather than what they’re expected to do.

Madame Olenska is the woman he most obviously loves. He admires her strength, beauty, and passion. But May represents what’s expected of him: a nice New York girl who’s beautiful, has done no wrong and comes from a good family. As tempted as he is, the story does not turn out the way a modern day love triangle story would. In that period of American history, avoiding scandal was a priority.

So it seems that the story’s setting itself is its own character in the novel. The time and place directly control the characters’ actions. But because we live in modern times, it also makes the story suspenseful, thrilling, and above all, romantic, in the most heartbreaking of ways.

MVP: Madame Olenska. She’s the only character in the novel who truly shows strength and bravery. Yes, she’s “different” from the other New York women, but it’s because she’s willing to stand up for herself by getting out of a bad marriage and befriending those who she legitimately likes, rather than those who come from good family backgrounds. She speak her mind, when everyone else’s mouths and minds stay shut.

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Review: The Prodigal Hour

Recap: If you were given a time travel machine just moments after your father was killed, what would you do? Go back in time, right? Fix it? Save him? Of course. And that’s exactly what happens to Chance Sowin in The Prodigal Hour. At the beginning of the book, Chance Sowin returns home to his father in New Jersey after 9/11 has startled him and made living in New York uncomfortable. But upon his arrival, his father — a brilliant scientist — is murdered. He quickly learns that one of his father’s inventions has something to do with it. He and his longtime neighbor — and childhood crush — Cassie Lackesis unravel the truth behind his father’s research.

His father had developed a time machine. Despite the consequences, the two go back in time to save Chance’s dad. When they do so, his father tells them about the dangers and beauty of time travel. And off they go — back to the time of Jesus and Hitler. With hopes to watch history happen, they instead become involved, and it changes everything.

But The Prodigal Hour uses dual narration. Besides Chance, we also learn about Leonard Kensington, another scientist and time traveler. But as we read the chapters he narrates, we realize he has a distorted sense of reality…or rather it’s different from our reality. It leaves us to wonder how Leonard is related to Chance and Cassie and when and where they will meet.

Analysis: Many novels nowadays tend to use 9/11 as a way to entice readers. It’s a depressing, relatively recent event to which we can all relate, remember, and grieve over. Often times, I feel 9/11 is abused in books and movies. While September 11th is the starting point of The Prodigal Hour, it’s not the focus of the story, and I like that.

And while I’m a big fan of the time travel concept, I must admit the beginning dragged a bit for my taste and was confusing when explaining the science behind the time travel. The Leonard Kensington narration intrigued me, but also left me confused about where he fit into the story.

That being said, the second half of the book was amazing. I had been lost as to why Chance and Cassie travel back to the time of Jesus and Hitler — and not happier moments in history — but I later realized it didn’t matter in the overall scheme of the story. And as the time travel concept came full circle and brought Cassie, Chance, and Leonard within minutes and cities of each other, I couldn’t put the book down. The last half was a whirlwind of crazy time, space continuum, in which I got caught up not only with when and where, but who, what, and why.

MVP: Chance Sowin. His character shows a lot of range, depth, and growth throughout the book. Initially, I am annoyed with him and his stubborn need to travel through time and change history. But he grows up and learns that who is more important than when.

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Review: Water for Elephants

Recap:  There’s nothing like a good love triangle. Put that triangle in an usual setting, and you’ve got yourself a story. Such is the case with Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants. Elephants follows the story of a Jacob Jankowski, a man in his 90s who lives in a nursing home. The circus comes to town, and the mere mention of the word “circus” brings Jacob back to his young in the 1930’s — a time when circuses were all the rage.

After Jacob’s parents died, Jacob drops out of vet school at Cornell University and joins the circus on a whim. It’s the time of the Great Depression, and with no money, no parents, and no college degree, he decides to stay with the traveling performers. But he soon learns there’s a difference between the entertainers and the working men. He joins the ranks as a working man, serving as the vet for the exotic animals in the show.

In due time, he not only falls in love with the new, untrained, seemingly dumb elephant, Rosie, but he also falls for the show’s star performer, Marlena. One small problem: Marlena happens to be married to one of the show’s directors, August.

Analysis: In some ways, Elephants is a story that’s been written many times over — a love triangle in which the woman is torn between two men with starkly different backgrounds. But it’s the setting and animal subplot that add flavor to this book.

The 1930’s setting deals with a lot of historical issues, including the Great Depression, prohibition, and the technological hindering in the world of medical treatment. For instance, a number of men in the circus suffer from Jake’s leg, a disease caused by drinking contaminated Jamaican ginger that often made its way into alcohol at the time. When one comes down with Jake’s leg, he becomes paralyzed and dies. Not to mention, August suffers from schizophrenia, a disease that was known back then, but not properly treated.

And the animal plot delves deep into animal treatment. In the book, the exotic animals were often times beat to a pulp — something that simply would not fly these days — especially if they were circus animals.

Gruen’s telling of the story also makes it appealing. It reminded me of The Notebook in that it flipped back and forth between a story from long ago and the present day — in which the storyteller is old and reflecting back on his or her life. Water for Elephants is an exciting, engaging page-turner.

MVP: Kinko/Walter, Jacob’s bunkmate. Initially, Kinko is a grouchy, condescending performer — a dwarf — who wants nothing to do with Jacob. But his character develops, and we learn that he may be a dwarf, but he has a giant heart.

Now you can buy Water for Elephants for less than $10.

Not to mention, check out the movie, starring Robert Pattinson (Jacob) and Reese Witherspoon (Marlena).

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Review: The Lost Symbol

Recap: The Lost Symbol begins in much the same way all of Dan Brown’s books in the Robert Langdon series do: Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is abruptly interrupted to respond to a symbol emergency. In this particular novel — the third and most recent in the series — Langdon’s mentor, Peter Solomon, requests that he give a speech at the United States Capitol. So Langdon flies to Washington D.C. But he’s in for much more than he imagined. 

He soon learns he’s been tricked. In fact, Peter Solomon has no idea Langdon is in town. And as Langdon attempts to find him, he instead finds his mentor’s severed hand, lying in the middle of the Capitol Rotunda. In a moment of chaos, Langdon learns Solomon has been kidnapped by a man named Mal’akh. Mal’akh tells him the only way Solomon will be spared is if Langdon locates the Lost Word and Mason’s Pyramid.

And so begins a new symbolic saga for Langdon, who must find the Lost Word, the Mason’s Pyramid, Peter Solomon, and deal with the CIA in its attempts to find the kidnapper.

Analysis: It’s apparent that Brown uses a specific guideline for his Robert Langdon stories. They all start the same and take Robert Langdon to another city on a quest to find or decode something. Always, there is an exotic woman involved — in this case, Peter Solomon’s younger sister and brilliant scientist Katherine — and the entire long-winded story takes place in the course of an evening.

Brown not only uses similar formatting in his novels, but common themes as well: religion, symbology, ancient art, architecture, and history. The same holds true in The Lost Symbol, in which the reader is taught about the world of Freemasonry. Also included is information about the architecture in Washington D.C. and the art that adorns it. You know when you’re reading a Dan Brown novel, it’s going to be  heavy. There’s a lot for the readers to wrap their heads around. And as overwhelming and intimidating as it looks, the background information is necessary in the long run.

In The Lost Symbol, Brown also focuses a lot on character development. Learning about Katherine’s Noetic science research and the many transformations of Mal’akh are particularly fascinating.

But there’s nothing like Brown’s pacing and storytelling. The short chapters help the novel move along quickly, and the major twist toward the end is breathtaking.

MVP: Katherine Solomon. Girl power! This woman is brilliant and kicks ass. She works well with Langdon to try to uncover the Ancient Mysteries and the location of her brother. There’s an underlying tone of romance between her and Langdon, but Brown keep its realistic. But most importantly, Katherine’s emotional ties to their work –namely, trying to saving her brother’s life — makes the reader feel for Katherine and the pressure she is under.

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